LOWELL, Mass. — One week ago, UMass-Lowell and Providence were in the same shoes. The River Hawks were winless in five straight, the Friars had but one victory in the last five. As both teams ended their season with a head-to-head battle Friday night, things between the two were anything but similar.
Lowell defeated the Friars, 6-1, Friday night. Notably, Lowell ends the season on a three-game winning streak while the Friars stretch their winless streak to seven.
“We’re a team that seems to be struggling a bit with our confidence,” said Providence coach Paul Pooley. “But we compound that by making poor decisions. They guys are a bit frustrated by watching them play. And when you get a chance to score you get a little bit tight.”
Opposite to that are the River Hawks — having clinched home ice for the first time in six seasons with Wednesday’s win over Northeastern. The Hawks enter the playoffs looking again like the team that held the number-three ranking nationally just 40 days ago.
“[As seniors] we don’t want to go out our final year having any regrets,” said Lowell goaltender Jimi St. John (18 saves) on Lowell’s senior night that saw ten players graduate from the program. “We don’t want this to be the year you say, ‘You could have done this, could have done that.’ There’s just a sense of urgency.”
St. John himself has faced a strange situation. One year ago, St. John led through a late-season charge and a playoff run that included a quarterfinal series win at New Hampshire. After starting the season hot, struggles allowed fellow senior tender Cam McCormick to post record numbers in net while St. John watched. But as the team fought through a tough month of February, McCormick stepped aside to allow St. John to once again shine.
“It fells good to get back in [net],” said St. John. “It came at a good time for the team. I’m glad to get the chance to get back in and help the team.”
To have two solid goaltenders is something that pleases Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald, who becomes the first Lowell coach since Bruce Crowder to lead Lowell to a 20-win season.
“What makes this a great situation is the relationship the two goaltenders have,” said MacDonald. “I think they, like their classmates, care about one thing: being the best team that they can be, scratching and clawing for every victory they can.”
On a night that honored Lowell’s ten seniors, it seemed appropriate that four of the six goals would come from the sticks of the outgoing players. Co-captain Yorick Treille led that effort, netting the first two Lowell goals, including the game-winner, just four games after returning from the Olympics.
The River Hawks, though only holding a slight advantage in shots, controlled the puck for the first half of the game. The offense got on the board early when Treille scored his first 3:29 into the first. After Peter Hay forced a turnover behind the Providence net, Laurent Meunier fed a wide-open Treille in the slot for his seventh goal of the season.
Providence would fail to capitalize in the first period on two power plays, though it was with the man-advantage that the Friars got their best scoring chance. John DiSalvatore was set up in front by Devin Rask but unable to beat St. John, who closed the five-hole just in time.
“Specialty teams were a big key to the game,” said Providence coach Paul Pooley. “Since the beginning of February, our power play has just gone south.”
After Providence’s Steve Wood was sent off for holding late in the first period, the River Hawk power play — which has flown opposite to the Friars, scoring on four of its last five chances — added to the lead early in the second. Treille’s slapshot from the left point hit traffic in front and beat Providence goaltender David Cacciola (18 saves), who made only his fifth appearance of the season and first since January 22, for the 2-0 Lowell advantage.
Less than two minutes later, the Hawks had a 6-on-5 advantage after St. John was pulled with a penalty coming up to Providence’s Jason Platt. Meunier buried a rebound of a Josh Allison shot from the point to give Lowell a three-goal cushion.
The Friars answered that time. As Lowell was caught scrambling in then defensive zone for the first time in the game, Devin Rask took advantage, burying a pass from David Carpentier to pull the Friars within two at 9:39.
But the River Hawks would again take advantage of special teams. Seconds after a penalty to Providence’s Mike Lucci expired, Mark Concannon finished off an isolated two-on-one with Darryl Green. It was Concannon’s third goal in two games, doubling his goal output on the season in three days.
Rask looked to have answered again, facing a wide open net on the power play with 3:40 remaining. But the junior fired the shot off the inside of the right post, allowing the Lowell defense the chance to clear.
Before the end of the second, Lowell extended the lead as senior Tom Rouleau patiently pushed a shot past Cacciola, surprised to see Rouleau wide open in front.
Sporting a four-goal lead, the River Hawks were content playing solid defense in the third period, limiting the Friars to five shots. The Hawks scored the only tally of the period on the power play as Hay redirected a Baptiste Amar shot with 2:54 to play accounting for the 6-1 final.
Lowell finished the regular season at 20-11-3 (12-9-3 Hockey East) and will host a quarterfinal series in the Hockey East playoffs for the first time ever at Tsongas Arena. It is Lowell’s first 20-win season since 1995-96, the last time Lowell hosted a playoff game. Lowell finished with a 26-10-4 record that season.
Providence finishes a disappointing season in seventh place (13-18-5, 8-13-3 Hockey East) after being the top pick in the Hockey East preseason coaches poll. Providence will travel to face the number-two seed in the playoffs — either Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire.